I first met Kumar Shahani in January 1971 at Mrinal Sen’s residence where I had gone to interview Mrinal-da for the first time. I was a budding film journalist trying to push through doors, break barriers, at 26. Mrinal-da’s living room was filled with people from the world of films. But except for Anup Kumar, a noted actor of Bengali cinema, the other names of faces simply failed to register.

Among others, the two I met later were K. K. Mahajan and Kumar Shahani. But they were also on the first step into becoming full-fledged cinematographer and filmmaker respectively and I went on meeting them later at film festivals and screenings. I got to know Shahani closely later on but I did not remind him of the first meeting. I was a bit shy to do it.

Later, at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival in 2019, I managed to get an interview. He was invited to deliver the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture, an annual feature of KIFF. I also attended another talk by him on acting at another programme and here is how the interview went. It was an enriching and learning experience for me, though I was no longer a beginner.

You went to Paris on a French government scholarship and assisted Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce (1969). What was the experience like?

I was inspired by the minimalism of European masters but did not shun decorative metaphors that defined the Indian tradition altogether. The foundation was laid by our director, Ritwik Ghatak who was the director of the FTII when I and Mani Kaul were students.

He taught us never to imitate the film-making craft, technique and language from anyone, not our mentors, our teachers of filmmakers who pulled us as great innovators. Rosselini and Robert Bresson have been major influences in my work. It was difficult to shrug off the deep influence of their cinema on my work but I fought against it to create my own language.

You also won the Homi Bhabha Fellowship. What did you learn from this?

This was in 1976. I got the opportunity to study the epic tradition of the Mahabharata, Buddhist iconography, Indian classical music and the Bhakti Movement. This helped me to study the epic tradition in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and iconography, the amalgam of European formalism and Indian mythology and music impressed me with a unique visual signature where no ism screamed for attention.

During this time, I also took to writing and teaching which opened a completely new world for me. The writings later came out in the form of a book of essays, ‘The Shock of Desire and Other Essays’ which has 51 essays by me.

Are you against mainstream Indian cinema?

I am totally against putting cinema into brackets of parallel and commercial, because I also admire the contribution of Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar but I do maintain that popular cinema should make an effort to look beyond the image.

We have heard that your film, ‘Maya Darpan’ winning the National Award did not go down well with many. Comment?

Not really. There were some who saw in the film a breakthrough in the commonly defined cinematic language in the European and American circuits. ‘Maya Darpan ‘explored a woman’s desire caught in a feudal society. But it is also true that though ‘Maya Darpan’ dealt with a woman’s desire caught in a feudal society won the National Film Award, I met with strong resistance on home ground and it took and it took me 12 years to mount my next film. The film, released in 1972, flopped at the box office.

How do you differentiate between acting in your films and acting in films by other directors?

I can only speak for myself. I personally think that different styles of film-making naturally lead to different styles of acting. John Grierson for example, was a great actor who could change his mode of acting from one director to another. In my opinion, he is a greater actor than Marlon Brando.

You talk about this thing called ‘negative space.’ What is negative space? Would you define long periods of silence in a film’s sequence as ‘negative space?’

Silence is close to negative space but it is not exactly negative space. Negative space is the ambience that builds up to the final performance. The ‘thaat’ performed in the beginning of a Kathak performance for instance, is what I would define as ‘negative space.’ Sadly, today’s Kathak performers do not perform the ‘thaat’ at all.

You are as if ‘thrust’ into the performance directly. Negative space is the ambience that creates the context for the actor and also enriches the sound and the resonance of the actor’s performance. Actors are rarely conscious of the importance of this ‘negative space.’

How would you differentiate between acting in theatre and acting for the cinema?

Everything is different in these two streams of acting. An actor who acts in films must relate to a whole style of how the shots are taken, how the shots are put together, how the music holds, what is around him, apart from the dialogue he has to deliver, the expression he has to give, the character he has to portray.

Acting is just one small segment in the entire scenario of the actor’s work for a film. In theatre, these things do not exist. Resonance in speech too, has to change dramatically when one is transcending from theatre to cinema.

What, according to you, is the importance of film in this age of growing digitalism?

I am of the firm belief that films should be shot on celluloid. Even at Cannes they have started screening celluloid and digital parallelly. At the very least, the audience should be given the choice to pick which medium they want to watch a film in. Advancing technologies are great but the true essence of cinema is getting lost.

Too many films these days rely on post-production. One famous company got into business many years ago but they are still considered superior, since photochemical bonding is richer than that of pixels

Can cinema raise voices and express opinions?

Films are not the ultimate solution to raise voices. Cinema cannot entirely enunciate the deep thoughts and worries of the human mind. It is for the youth to be vocal and free itself from the confines of imperialistic tendencies. It is necessary for other arts like music, dance and art to spell out a spirit of liberation among the youth. If the youth does not do it, who will?